The Growing Irrelevance of Polls; Telephone Surveys Skew Election Predictions

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), May 22, 2013 | Go to article overview

The Growing Irrelevance of Polls; Telephone Surveys Skew Election Predictions


Byline: Michael Taube, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Anyone who reads a daily newspaper such as The Washington Times will regularly see references to public opinion polls. The polling data gathered from trends and insights has historically provided helpful guidance for consumers, academics and businesses.

Unfortunately, this doesn't seem to be the case quite as much with politics. Today's polls are becoming increasingly irrelevant factors, and mean little in the political process.

Here are two pertinent Canadian examples. First, most polls during Alberta's 2012 provincial election consistently showed the mildly center-right Tories were going to lose power to a more center-right outfit, the Wildrose Party. Second, virtually every polling firm indicated the left-wing New Democratic Party would defeat the governing center-right Liberals earlier this month in British Columbia.

In both cases, the party that was supposed to finish a distant second surprised pollsters, pundits and politicos by winning the election. Moreover, the Alberta Tories and British Columbia Liberals formed majority governments and threw my country's polling firms for a loop.

To be fair, this is part of a growing trend we've seen in other countries, including the United States. The 1948 presidential election between Harry S. Truman and Thomas E. Dewey is perhaps the most famous example of mistaking voter preferences. There have been plenty of modern examples, too.

During the 1980 presidential election, The New York Times-CBS polls insisted Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan were locked in a tight battle. The Washington Post made the same argument during the 1984 presidential election between Reagan and Walter F. Mondale. Neither election was even close.

In more recent years, the polls have been completely skewed. Take the 2012 presidential election between President Obama and Mitt Romney. Although Mr. Obama won the Electoral College by a significant margin (332-206), the popular vote was tight (51.1-47.2 percent). Many polls were all over the map in this regard. Gallup's national tracking poll had Mr. Romney leading by 6 points (51 percent to 45 percent), Bloomberg had Mr. Obama by the same margin (49 percent to 43 percent), while Fox News, CNN-Opinion Research and Politico-GWU-Battleground all called it a dead heat.

Clearly, there is an escalating problem with public opinion firms and the information being collected. They must shoulder the blame with other individuals and groups, however. …

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